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Reviewed by Ryan T. Anderson

"Christianity Is Not an Intellectual System"

The theology of Pope Benedict XVI.

In the usual telling of the tale, Joseph Ratzinger went from being a progressive reformer at the Second Vatican Council to being God's reactionary Rottweiler as the Catholic Church's chief doctrinal authority under John Paul II.

That standard account misses the truth about the Bavarian theologian who has become Pope Benedict XVI. Tracey Rowland—professor of political philosophy and continental theology at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia—paints a more complete picture in her new book, Ratzinger's Faith, arguing that Ratzinger's fundamental theological convictions have remained essentially constant while the world around him has changed. Ratzinger's Faith is the first serious book on Benedict's theology since Aidan Nichols' excellent 1987 volume The Thought of Joseph Ratzinger. Unlike Nichols, however, Rowland proceeds thematically, not chronologically, and she strikes a balance between lucid accessibility for non–specialist readers and the kind of scholarly precision that theologians require.

The key to Ratzinger, Rowland explains, is his place in history. Never enthralled by the prevailing neoscholastic Thomism he encountered as a student, Ratzinger gravitated toward an Augustinian and Bonaventurian emphasis on love as an antidote to the hyper–rationalism of God as the logos of pure reason. Ratzinger's long–running theological emphasis on beauty and history can also be traced to his early studies, and the theme of God as love marked his first encyclical as pope.

Examining Ratzinger's response to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, may provide our best insight his theology. An important theological debate at the time focused on the relation of nature and grace—central to the relations between faith and reason, and between the church and the world.

Ratzinger faulted the neoscholastics for attempting to defend Christianity in terms established by an Enlightenment standard of rationality. Adherents of Karl Rahner's Transcendental Thomism, on the other hand, argued that people had a priori concepts (transcendentals) about God, which could be uncovered by looking into the self.  Rowland argues that Rahnerians viewed the Council as "a mandate from the Holy Spirit to accommodate the Church's practices (and for some even her teachings) to the norms and rapidly changing mores of contemporary society."  Ultimately, she argues, the neoscholastic project would lead to secularization—since reason divorced from revelation and grace is sufficient to define the essence of man and organize society—while Rahner's approach tended to naturalize the supernatural.

Though once a collaborator with Rahner, Ratzinger ultimately resisted both of these alternatives to side with the nouvelle theologie of Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, a movement stressing a ressourcement of the Church's essential and timeless truth: Jesus Christ as attested by the biblical and patristic tradition. For Ratzinger, "there are no leaps in this history, there are no fractures, and there is no break in continuity. In no wise did the council intend to introduce a temporal dichotomy in the church." There is one church, not pre– and post–Vatican II versions.

As Rowland explains, Ratzinger emphasizes that the proper way to interpret Vatican II is to see that "the human person only understands his or her identity to the extent that he or she is open to a relationship with Christ. Christology is deemed necessary for any adequate anthropology"; reason alone is never sufficient. On this reading, the purpose of Gaudium et Spes was to affirm authentic human longings and argue that "only a Christocentric anthropology has any hope of realizing these legitimate aspirations." Like John Paul before him, Ratzinger frequently invokes the 22nd paragraph of Gaudium et Spes, which declares that Christ reveals not only God to man but also "man to man himself."

For Ratzinger, according to Rowland, "a 'daring new' Christocentric theological anthropology is the medicine that the world needs," and "it is the responsibility of the Church to administer it." We can understand our human destiny only through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

This emphasis on Christology is central to Ratzinger's thinking on just about everything else. Responding to the then–dominant view of revelation that championed its "propositional character," Ratzinger argued that revelation is not a mere collection of true statements about God. Revelation is Jesus Christ himself—not the Greek philosophers' unmoved–mover, but the God of Trinitarian and human relationships, active in the world as creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Dei Verbum, Vatican II's decree on revelation, restored, in Ratzinger's words, the "focus on the biblical God for whom it is precisely relationship and action that are the essential marks."

Revelation, however, is more than a text; here Rowland explains Ratzinger's reservations about the historical–critical method of biblical scholarship: Scripture must be read within a tradition, for the truth of revelation is mediated through a historically defined community—the church—that one can never interpret from the outside. To reject the providential guidance of the Holy Spirit in the historical development of Christian doctrine is to miss the historical role that the Christian church must play in its transmission.

In this light, Ratzinger argues that the church should be viewed sacramentally—as the sacrament of salvation to the world, as the institution that makes Christ present to humanity. Rowland repeatedly stresses that Ratzinger resists all attempts to think of the church in political or sociological terms. In its essence, the church consists of communities that gather to celebrate the Eucharist, but these don't make the Eucharist; the Eucharist makes the communities—which means, as Ratzinger puts it, that the universal church is "logically and ontologically prior to the particular churches."

It becomes easier to understand, then, Benedict's emphasis on church unity, the collegiality of bishops, and the ministry of unity entrusted to the bishop of Rome. Evangelicals might wonder where this places them. Ratzinger stands firmly in continuity with Vatican II in insisting that the church of Christ exists most fully and rightly only within the Catholic Church, but that there are elements of sanctification and truth in churches and ecclesial communities outside Catholicism's formal structure.

Since the church's mission is to reveal the God–Man to modern man, it is no surprise that Ratzinger has written so prolifically on the liturgy, for it is in the cosmic drama of the Mass that God most fully enters into the lives of His people. Despite what Ratzinger's detractors say, he does indeed support the liturgical reforms instituted at Vatican II. It is their implementation that he thinks has gone awry, requiring a reform of the reform. Post–conciliar liturgists argued that pastoral considerations required eliminating "archaic" languages, unnecessary repetitions, artistic music, and outdated gestures. But for Ratzinger, the integrity of Christian worship—and thus belief—is at stake when the liturgy's organic development of sacred actions, words, sounds, sights, and smells is interrupted. The result, as Ratzinger sees it, is akin to the apostasy of worshipping the golden calf—a celebration of the worshipping community itself, not of the true God.

Rowland explains that, for Ratzinger, "faithfully transmitting the liturgy to the next generation has the effect of guaranteeing the true freedom of the faithful," so that they are "not victims of something fabricated by an individual or group." Indeed, "the 'freedom' of liturgical innovators can become 'dominion' for the rest … . It is God's descent upon the world which is the source of real liberation. He alone can open the door to freedom."

That Christ opens the door to freedom is easily forgotten when Christianity is reduced to a system of rules to follow just to avoid damnation. As Ratzinger noted in a 2005 funeral homily, "Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story." The solution to the problem of moralism is an emphasis on love: "God is love and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 John 4:16). According to Ratzinger, morality is fundamentally about the true and lasting fulfillment found in loving God, neighbor, and self.

Ratzinger isn't interested in a moral casuistry that can't explain why one should be moral in the first place. He considers many natural–law arguments to be "blunt instruments," and thinks that ethics only works with theological presuppositions. So, for example, with regard to rival understandings of sexuality Rowland argues that "Benedict's strategy is therefore not so much to prove that Christian ethics are more rational than the alternatives, but to exhort married Christians to demonstrate in culturally embodied practices that they are more true, good, and beautiful; as it were, more erotic."

What happens when this Christian witness wanes has been the subject of Ratzinger's extensive and uniquely insightful cultural analysis of Europe and Western civilization. The same themes that Ratzinger developed when responding to intra–Catholic debates about faith and reason, philosophy and theology, and the Church and the modern world are fully on display in his diagnosis of the ills of the West. He develops what Rowland calls a "double helix" genealogy of corruption "in which the Hellenic component of the culture was severed from the Christian and in which the Christian component was fundamentally undermined by the mutation of the doctrine of creation … . When faith in creation is lost, Christian faith is transformed into gnosis, and when faith in reason is lost, wisdom is reduced to the empirically verifiable which cannot sustain a moral framework."

But for Ratzinger, human reason itself developed providentially, so that God delivered and developed the faith in a certain time and place for providential reasons as well.  Unlike Tertullian—who asked "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"—Ratzinger believes that salvation history and ancient philosophy are providentially intertwined, neither fully flourishing without the other. Here Benedict echoes John Paul II: "To reject this heritage would be to deny the providential plan of God who guides His Church down the paths of time and history."

At the end of the book, Rowland observes that most attempts to categorize Ratzinger fail. It's "not so much a choice between Augustine and Aquinas (this is too general a proposition) as a choice between different versions of Thomism. Most precisely, it is a choice between the Transcendental Thomism of Karl Rahner and the 'Augustinian Thomism' of Henri de Lubac, coupled with von Balthasar's theology of history." That seems about right, and it might explain why few philosophers seem to warm up to Ratzinger's theory of knowledge. While MacIntyreans will appreciate the emphasis on historically conditioned traditions of rationality, some Christian philosophers will reject the proposition that reason and philosophy are dependent on faith and theology. Maybe if the Thomistic options are presented as either Transcendental or Augustinian it will appear this way, but this leaves out the dominant branch of Thomistic thought, Aristotelian Thomism. This is a discussion for another day, but it is a shame that Rowland did not address it.

That gripe aside, Rowland's Ratzinger's Faith is a remarkable success that will provide readers with a nuanced and rigorous yet accessible introduction to the main currents of thought of the current bishop of Rome. How, in the end, will Pope Benedict try to re–convert the West? Not with syllogistic arguments, but through lived holiness. As Rowland puts it, for Ratzinger, "the saints, rather than the rationality of the Enlightenment, are the true bearers of light in human history and the best models of how to engage the world." Rather than "God's Rottweiler," perhaps this Bavarian Pontiff is more akin to "God's German Shepherd," who, through a life of service to the church, is laying down his life for his sheep.

Ryan T. Anderson is assistant editor of First Things.

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